3M CMO Don Branch Charged With Bringing Science To Life

“Everyone has a part to play in inspiring others and making the world a better place to live,” said 36-year 3M veteran Don Branch. He spoke to CMO.com about his plan to create a more integrated customer experience, as well as the company’s recent return to SXSW with a platform about sustainability.

3M CMO Don Branch Charged With Bringing Science To Life

There’s a running gag in the movie “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” that the characters invented the Post-it Note, but, in actuality, the handy timesavers were created at 3M, and it was up to Don Branch to help market them.

Branch, who has been with 3M for 36 years, the last couple as its CMO, currently leads a team in charge of leveraging the company’s iconic brand. He recently spoke to CMO.com about a variety of marketing topics, as well as the company’s return to SXSW with a platform dealing with sustainability.

CMO.com: How did you first become interested in marketing?

Branch: I was born in Mississippi and went to Louisiana Tech University for school. When I graduated, I heard 3M was looking to hire people. I was part of the original team that launched the Post-it Note. I never thought I would end up in marketing, but four years and four cities later, I ended up in St. Paul, promoted into a marketing position. A few years later, I was fortunate enough to move to in international business development role, traveling to Latin America and Asia. That led to a European assignment in marketing for our office supply business—right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

All told, about half my career has been spent outside the U.S., and I’ve worked in more than 65 countries. For me, marketing holds a special fascination if you think of almost daily moving through different languages, different market conditions, different cultures, and trying to solve for the drivers of purchase, loyalty, and brand preference.

CMO.com: What recent marketing programs have come from your willingness to break new ground? What were the results?

Branch: My title is chief marketing officer of the company, but that’s a little misleading compared to other company structures. I don’t have product marketing responsibility; instead, I lead the corporate marketing and sales functions. To that end, a lot of what my team does from a program standpoint is enable the rest of the corporation and our five business groups to find new business in their respective markets.

As examples, we are leading a worldwide effort for customer-journey mapping and defining our end-to-end customer experience. We are also bringing up an HTML 5.0 responsive design for 3M.com in 75-plus countries. And we are in the process of putting in place enterprise-level social listening, social publishing, marketing automation, sales automation, service automation, and content management platforms.

Results are yet to come, but we expect to drive a more integrated customer experience and greater loyalty for our brands.

CMO.com: What is a good example of 3M’s marketing culture in action?

Branch: We are always looking for unique ways to show how science applies to everyone’s life. Sometimes that involves joining an existing conversation, but other times it means creating our own moment in time. A great example of this was last August when we created a Rube Goldberg machine using only 3M products. Through this idea we were able to tap into an ongoing public curiosity in Rube Goldberg machines, while also showcasing the depth and breadth of 3M products across automotive, health-care, electronics, construction, energy, and communications industries.

CMO.com: Can you give me an example of a recent marketing campaign and the genesis behind it?

Branch: Last October, we tapped into the pop culture phenomenon of “Back to the Future” Day by modernizing a DeLorean. Using gold 3M Wrap Film from our 1080 series, 3M Wheel Weights, and 3M Automotive Window Film—Crystalline Series, we highlighted 3M’s leadership role in the automotive industry. There are less than 10,000 DeLoreans, three of which were gold-plated. We made the fourth gold DeLorean to make it even more iconic. We created a set of videos, including a time-lapse view of the 3M vehicle wrap going on the DeLorean, a 1980s parody video, and an entire social campaign based around these assets. The campaign was a partnership between our automotive divisions and brand teams, and was a huge success both externally and internally.

CMO.com: Let’s talk about 3M’s return to the South by Southwest (SWSW) Festival. I understand you promised “a fully immersive experience.” Please explain.

Branch: Visitors to 3M’s “Big Picture” experience were encouraged to see 3M and themselves as part of the solution to the challenges [expected to face a world of] 9 billion people in the year 2050. Everyone has a part to play in inspiring others and making the world a better place to live. … We—governments, NGOs, companies, and individuals—need to address these challenges together.

In just three days, more than 7,000 people came through and experienced the Big Picture. Because we designed our presence this year with a “social-first” approach, we were thrilled to see an immensely positive reaction in conversation on the ground, across social and earned media, and with our panel discussion.

The results came from hours of planning, collaboration, creativity, and innovative thinking, where the goal was always to bring an authentic, substantive topic to Austin. It’s a highly sophisticated, educated audience, so for us to do some storytelling about 3M’s history in sustainability and be able to connect with the attendees about the possibilities for the future and how we are applying science to life to help solve global challenges was truly rewarding.

Even more so, we see “The Big Picture” as a long-term effort: Having conversations about sustainability is the best short-term outcome we could hope for, but inspiring change among companies, governments, and individuals to take the necessary action to improve every life before we get to 9 billion people on the planet is the true measure of success.

CMO.com: How is SXSW different than other meetings/events for 3M? What have you learned in your years there that have helped you prepare the best presentation?

Branch: SXSW is an event dedicated to ideas that brings together business and academics, innovators, and progressive thinkers. We think it is the perfect setting to discuss inevitable environmental issues, and how business and science can create solutions to some of these issues.

Because 3M has a presence in Austin, in past years we tended to use SXSW as a product showcase and a recruiting forum. Every major corporation is working to connect with the millennial audience. So last year we intentionally used our SXSW space to launch our new brand platform. We felt this required us to show up in a different way—not like a 100-year-old company, but like the constantly renewed, innovation engine that we are. The feedback from attendees, traditional media, and through social was overwhelmingly positive, from the conversations we had in the 3M LifeLab—with four times the visitors from previous years—to millions of social impressions, finishing with Los Angeles-based DJ TOKiMONSTA using 3M technology to use her heartbeat as the underlying rhythm of a dance mix for attendees.

CMO.com: More broadly speaking, what is your marketing philosophy, and how has it evolved over the years?

Branch: The value equation is critical. If you don’t get that right, people don’t buy. The components of that value equation change dramatically across geographies and across our portfolio of businesses. Driving to the insights that help achieve the value equation have always been paramount for me.

I also believe that marketing is a team sport. So many of my marketing philosophies have changed and grown as I have learned how to build high-performing teams.

CMO.com: Can you cite one out-of-the-box idea that you have tried and seen success with in your career?

Branch: There is real power in using a strong brand at all levels of a product pyramid–especially relevant as you enter developing markets. The key to that is not to talk about various levels of “quality” but to talk about the intersection of performance levels and price point. This is ultimately the value equation we talked about earlier. 3M makes high-performance products—meaning that the consistency of our technology and production methods ensures that each time you open that package, that 3M product should perform the same way it did last time.

Being able to execute on that strategy requires real differentiation in the product tiers that can be perceived by the customer and then communicated very well. But it can be powerful in the marketplace—who would buy a competitive repositionable note when you can buy a Post-it Note at a similar price point?

CMO.com: What would people be most surprised to learn about what you do in your role as CMO?

Branch: 3M is a matrixed organization with decentralized controls, so a large portion of my role is building consensus for some of these ideas and getting permission to govern and execute.

CMO.com: Analytics is an important component of any marketing position. How do you use the data and metrics you collect to make choices that will help the company grow?

Branch: We’re one of the few remaining great materials science companies. And we are a Lean Six Sigma enterprise, so data is our lifeblood. The coming horizons of big data and predictive analytics, programmable media purchases, and, through this, our ability to offer differentiated business models and calculate ROI change the game for us completely.

CMO.com: What do you consider to be your biggest goal in the year ahead as you look to help the company grow?

Branch: The year 2016 is about driving efficient growth. The expansion of new digital capabilities and their impact on our ability to drive sales is critical over the next 18-month operational horizon. So for the corporate center, it’s about enabling systems and demand generation to help our businesses grow.

See what the Twitterverse is saying about CMO Interviews: